Speak Like a Bore

Like most things, public speaking is a skill. It can be learned, practiced and mastered if you are willing to put the time and effort in. Even so, for many the thought of standing up in front of people and speaking can fill them with dread, meaning they miss many business opportunities.

Throughout my career public speaking has been fundamental to what I do, and I have spoken on all aspects of security, with a strong focus on cyber security, security culture, and disinformation. Whilst now, some people say I make it look easy it wasn’t always this way. It’s something I have worked at and I still get nervous (it’s not fear, it’s excitement).

There’s a lot of advice out there, and it doesn’t all work for everyone. Since I get asked, and some of the advice I apply

Ten Tips to Speaking Like a Bore

Although every speaker is different and may have different styles of communication these tips are universal and will help speakers in every industry.

  1. Enough (but not too much) preparation  – This isn’t necessarily about rehearsal. Some advocate for diligent rehearsing, and for some people it works. It can also mean your talk comes off as scripted. Preparation for me is about thinking through the presentation and reviewing it, along with considering what questions it provokes. Having a couple of pre-prepared questions at the end (if you’re going into Q&A) can help break the audience’s resistance to being the first one to ask. I will run through one practice run, but rarely more than that and instead spend hours working through mentally.
  2. Know your audience – It’s important to pitch your talk at the appropriate level for the audience present. This could mean asking the organiser who they are, their knowledge level, and equally important the intended outcomes for the talk. Then, adjust your language to fit. Define your terms if they won’t be known, break down difficult concepts as you go through if your audience is unlikely to be familiar with them.
  3. Timing – Often when speaking you know in advance how long you have to speak for but sticking to it can be difficult if you haven’t prepared. Through practicing you can ensure you use the time sufficiently as well as not going over the allotted time or finishing too early. Also important when you’re dealing with some events is being able to adjust the length of your talk on the fly, due to other people overrunning or underrunning. Hosts are often very grateful if you can get their event back closer to the planned schedule. A silent alarm set at particular intervals helps to reinforce this.
  4. Appropriate Slides – As a guide there should be a maximum of one slide per minute of your talk, I usually aim for less than this. The slides should not have your speech written on them but should include images (or bullet points at most). You don’t want people to be reading when you are talking, and additionally what is the purpose of you being there if all the information is written on the slide? One good test is whether you could present without your slides (this doesn’t apply so much to technical presentations, and even less to ones involving live technical demos).
  5. Follow a structure – Think of your talk like a meal, with an appetiser (introducing the topic in a light summary to whet the appetite), a main (the crux of the talk), and dessert (a summary of all the key points). Coffee and mints afterwards covers the Q & A session which you could kick-start with ‘one question I often get asked about this is …’ if the audience is shy (they often are).
  6. Appropriate repetition – There is nothing worse than an hour’s talk which could have been completed in 15 minutes and was padded out with redundant points and verbiage (see the House of Commons for examples), but repeating points in a different way can both help to drive them home or relate them to different audience segments. In one of my favourite talks, I use three different end of the world scenarios to support a single point about decentralisation and resilience.
  7. Have a drink handy – Public speaking can be thirsty work but more importantly having a glass of water handy can be useful if you need a moment to catch up, have lost your thread, or need to think over an answer to a question. Those few seconds taking a sip can get you right on track. Depending on the audience and the venue, other beverages may be appropriate, but avoid straws, hot drinks, or anything sparkling, sour, or creamy (can stimulate saliva production, which you don’t really want too much of while speaking).
  8. Pace your speech – People have a tendency to speak faster when on stage than they do normally, and not breathe enough. Treat it more like a conversation, pauses in the right places give people time to process, faster speech is seen as a sign of nervousness so slowing down helps, and one thing I always want to avoid doing is letting my mouth run ahead of my thoughts – slowing it down means your thoughts can keep up and helps to erase pause words (um, err, ah, etc) and impressions of uncertainty.
  9. Interaction – Even if you are speaking in front of hundreds of people always remember you are speaking to a group of people with ideas, reactions and thoughts. Ask questions of the audience, although make it clear at the beginning whether interaction from them is acceptable. Simply asking for a show of hands or a nod can keep them engaged.
  10. Admit when you don’t know – Although point one stated it was important to prepare for questions that people may have, you may still get questions which you don’t have an answer for. Whatever you do, don’t blag it. If you don’t know the answer, ‘fess up and say you’re not sure. Better yet, go with my favourite answer ‘I don’t know but it’s a fascinating question and really deserves further exploration’.

There’s a lot more advice out there about public speaking from vocal exercises to correct posture but keep these ten things in mind and you won’t go far wrong. A lot of the rest comes from experience and finding your own stage persona. Try out different behaviours and techniques while you’re starting out, and see what works for you.

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